Being Flynn is a perfectly good title for a film about an aimless young man who works in a Boston homeless shelter, where his long-vanished father turns up one night. But the memoir it is based on has a GREAT title: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Despite that loss, the acerbic, thoughtful, colorful drama of Nick Flynn’s book comes through in Paul Weitz’s film. Even more impressive, it delivers Robert De Niro’s fullest role and strongest performance in years as the father, Jonathan Flynn, a proud, self-deluded writer on a relentless downward spiral.
Paul Dano’s wistful, wraithlike presence works for the role of Nick, the son still angry that his father deserted him and his beautiful, hard-working mother (Julianne Moore, in flashbacks) when Nick was a kid. But, intentionally or not, this character is the relatively calm center Jonathan spins around. When Jonathan calls out of nowhere – or out of 18 years before - demanding that Nick help him move his measly possessions into storage, the son nails Dad’s character pretty fast: “He’s a racist, he’s homophobic, he’s fucking crazy.”
As De Niro portrays him, he’s also sad, maddening, affecting, alcoholic. With longish gray hair and a fedora that suggests his attempt to retain his dignity even when he’s homeless, Jonathan ricochets in and out of his son’s orbit. As Jonathan announces in voiceover at the start, sounding all the more eloquent and lunatic with De Niro's precise enunciation, "America has produced only three classic writers: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and me.” Jonathan has, of course, published nothing; he works as a cab driver. And, I have to ask: didn’t Weitz have any qualms about letting us first see De Niro as, yes, a taxi driver? The image is wrong-headed if it’s an allusion, careless if it’s an accident, and definitely jolting. But from the start, De Niro’s great, understated control makes Jonathan fiercely compelling. (Dano's tamer voiceover hardly registers.)
Weitz captures the grimy reality of the shelter where Nick works, complete with lice and bodies you can almost smell. The apartment he shares with his roommates isn’t much better, and his own descent into a druggy haze is meant to be the heart of the film. Nick is the son following in his father’s footsteps - using drugs instead of alcohol, occasionally writing - while insisting they’re not at all alike. And Dano lets us understand why Nick can’t help his father; it’s all he can do to save himself.
But in fact, it’s the trajectory of Jonathan’s story that makes the film so wrenching. We know that the real Nick Flynn wrote a sharp, accomplished memoir, that he became a success as well as a survivor. Yet from the start of the film we feel that Jonathan is on an inexorable downward slide. Ejected from the homeless shelter for his angry, out of control behavior, he loses the fedora, he loses a tooth, he sleeps on a sidewalk grate, he is beaten in an alley. How does anyone come back from that?
The weight of Jonathan’s decline is what makes the film so rich and also so painful to watch. For a moment I wondered why it hadn’t opened during awards season; De Niro is absolutely that good. But it didn’t take long to see that Being Flynn is a tougher sell than most awards movies. Releasing this drama in a less competitive season may be a smarter move, even though the film offers a powerful reminder that De Niro is still the best.